FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Big Eight format change: The Big Eight has revamped the formatting of its schedule this year. Now, conference teams will each meet twice in the same week. The idea is that now, top teams can’t use their best pitcher against the same team twice. Each team will, out of necessity, face each other team’s No. 2 (or lower) starter — unless inclement weather messes up the schedule. The change should make an already intensely competitive conference even more cutthroat.
Badger Conference grows: How will the additions of Watertown (Badger South) and Beaver Dam (Badger North) affect the title race? Coaches in each respective division believe both teams, formerly of the Wisconsin Little Ten Conference, can compete for a championship right away.
Top of the heap: The race in the Big Eight between Janesville Craig and Sun Prairie will be must-watch games. Each team boasts Division 1 talent and a long tradition of success. Sun Prairie was ranked No. 1 in the Wisconsin Baseball Central preseason rankings and Craig was ranked No. 3. In a variance from the Big Eight's twice-in-one-week format, the teams are scheduled to meet April 14 at Sun Prairie and May 5 at Riverside Park in Janesville.
Rock Valley power: The Big Eight gets most of the attention as the area’s best conference, but the Rock Valley perennially has some of the top teams in Wisconsin. Beloit Turner, Jefferson, Evansville and Whitewater each have earned rankings or honorable mention in the Wisconsin Baseball Central preseason state rankings.
Summer is over: The ranks of WIAA spring baseball teams has been growing steadily lately, as more and more teams drop out of the summer baseball program to play in the larger spring program. That will become mandatory next year, as the summer of 2018 will be the last year of the WIAA summer tournament. About 50 schools will compete in summer ball this year, but about 20 of those already had announced plans to shift to spring ball, leaving about 30 summer teams — not enough for a WIAA program.
10 TEAMS TO WATCH
Janesville Craig: The Cougars will battle Sun Prairie for the top spot in arguably the state’s best conference this year. Along with Campbell, senior Noah Berghammer will play NCAA Division I baseball (Minnesota) and junior pitcher Mitch Woelfle was named a third-team preseason all-state player last season.
Sun Prairie: The Cardinals earned state runner-up honors last year and return pitcher Taylor Jansen (7-1, 2.64 ERA) and clean-up hitter Alex Oakley (.402).
Waunakee: The Warriors are the runaway favorite for the Badger North title, returning several key players from a team that reached the state tournament last season. Among the key returnees are ace pitcher Ben Nordloh (1.93 ERA), Derek Lee (1.40 ERA, .416 batting average), Riley Ripp (.356 batting average) and catcher Nate Stevens, an Arkansas commit.
Madison West: The Regents boast one of the area’s top players in Drake Baldwin, who is protected in the lineup by powerful junior third basemen Otto Treichel. However, the Regents are thin on the mound.
Middleton: The Cardinals are led by senior catcher Alan Roden, a Creighton commit who could help the Cardinals compete at the top of the conference.
Columbus: The Cardinals went 15-1 in the conference last season and return six starters, led by two-time league player of the year Randon Dauman on the mound and senior Connor Manthey, who hit .429 last season and will head to NCAA Division I Bradley in the fall, behind the plate.
Mount Horeb: The Vikings return junior hurler Tyler Denu, who tossed a perfect game last season (and another earlier this year) and finished with a 1.73 ERA and 73 strikeouts. But the Vikings must replace several key hitters to compete in the tough Badger North.
Verona: The Wildcats return Reagan Klawiter, who had a 1.08 ERA last year, and Tucker Teskey, a first-team, all-conference outfielder who hit .375.
Jefferson: The Eagles are one of this Rock Valley Conference favorites after winning 20 games last year. The Eagles bring back their top player, Ian Drays.
Lake Mills: The L-Cats hope to compete for a Capitol North Conference title, led by preseason-all state pitcher Brennan Dolwick.
10 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Drake Baldwin, jr. C, Madison West: Baldwin enters his third year as the backstop for the Regents. He has committed to Missouri State.
Josh Beier, sr., IF, Mount Horeb: Beier hit .420 for the Vikings last season and will lead the team’s charge in a loaded Badger North Conference.
Jacob Campbell, sr., C, Janesville Craig: The Illinois-bound catcher, a first-team all-state pick last year, is expected to be selected in the first ten rounds of the MLB draft.
Randon Dauman, sr., P, Columbus: Dauman is the reigning Capitol North Player of the Year after going 7-0 on the mound with a 1.02 ERA and compiling a .553 batting average.
Brennan Dolwick, sr., P, Lake Mills: The L-Cats’ ace has committed to play next year at the University of Cincinnati.
Ian Drays, sr., C, Jefferson: The two-time Rock Valley Conference Player of the Year will play at Northern Illinois University next season.
Jarrett Fueger, sr., IF, Waunakee: Fueger, a St. Louis University recruit, is one of the top players on one of the area’s best teams this spring.
Carson Holin, sr., OF, Sun Prairie: Holin hit .440 last season and will lead the Cardinals in pursuit of what would be their sixth WIAA state championship since 2005.
Stephen Lund sr., SS, Verona: The Gonzaga commit (as a catcher) missed all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery. But he was an all-conference player in both his freshman and sophomore seasons and is back for his senior year with Verona.
Dillon Nowicki, sr., P, Stoughton: The University of Michigan recruit built a 2.13 earned-run average last year.
OTHER AREA CAPSULES
Madison Memorial hopes to compete in the upper echelon of this loaded conference, led by junior infielder Tyler Austin (.313) and junior outfielder Jack Krumbach (.311). … Janesville Parker finished tied for sixth in the conference last season and returns three all-conference outfielders in Sam Garvoille, Jordan Bailey and Jadyn Ellis. … Beloit Memorial made the state tournament for the first time last year after finishing sixth in the Big Eight. The Purple Knights graduated five seniors and have a first-year head coach in Tyree Gamble. … Madison La Follette won just one game in the conference last season and lost seven seniors. Senior Sam Schmitt hit .280 and will look to lead the Lancers to a higher finish. … Madison East finished second to last in the Big Eight in 2017 and graduated its best player, Cameron Cratic.
Beaver Dam was widely picked among the Badger North coaches to finish in the top three of the conference. … DeForest is led by senior outfielder Jimmy Klein (.398) and senior pitcher Ezra Smith (2.48 ERA). Coach Harold Olson said his team can be labeled as, “experienced, but with average talent.'' … Sauk Prairie finished seventh in the conference last year, but returns six starters, including Elijah Jorgenson, a four-year starter at shortstop who hit .361 last season. … Reedsburg is led by seniors Nathan Kruser (.353) and Nathan Adelman (.362) and will look to improve on its fifth-place conference finish last season. … Portage and Baraboo both will be young and inexperienced in 2018.
Madison Edgewood might be the conference favorite this year after finishing 8-4 for second place last season. They are led by all-conference seniors Luke Follmann and Matthew Afable. … Oregon won the conference title last season, but graduated six starters and three others from that squad. The Panthers will be young, but will be led by all-conference seniors Jack Haufle and Carson Timberlake. … Watertown will look to compete for a conference title in its first year in the Badger South, and many coaches in the conference believe the Goslings have the ability to do so. … Stoughton will look to improve on its sixth-place conference finish this year, relying on University of Michigan recruit Dillon Nowicki, who compiled a 2.13 ERA on the mound last year. They also return all-conference players Nick Waldorf (.373) and Brady Schipper (.418). Monona Grove finished third in the South in Kevin Connor’s first year as head coach. He believes the Silver Eagles can compete for a conference title this season, led by Kolton Koch and Marshall Lehmann. … Milton finished fifth in the conference last year, but returns six starters. Senior center fielder Payden Belk will lead the Red Hawks. … Eric Losenegger takes over the baseball program at Monroe and looks to turn around a Cheesemakers program that finished last in the conference last year.
Lakeside Lutheran, under first-year head coach Philip Dretske, will lean on senior left-handed pitcher Trey Roth, who had a 1.43 ERA in 2017, in its bid to challenge conference favorites Columbus and Lake Mills. ... Lodi, a perennial challenger in the Capitol North, may remain in rebuilding mode this season.
Defending champion Wisconsin Heights will be the favorite as the Vanguards return half their starting lineup. … Belleville returns all nine starters from a team that finished second in the conference. … New Glarus will be led by senior infielder Andrew Nimtz, who hit .385 last season, and first-team, all-conference pitcher Jared Carney (2.33 ERA, 67 strikeouts). … Marshall finished tied for second in the Capitol South last year and returns eight starters. Senior Hunter Bergholz and sophomore Tyler Chadwick will lead the Cardinals. … Cambridge, which won just one game last season, will look to turn around its program under first-year head coach Larry Martin. ... Waterloo finished fifth in the league last year, but lost 10 letterwinners, with five returnees including four-year varsity player Easton Ellis (pitcher/infielder) and Louis Hensler (infielder/pitcher).
Beloit Turner advanced to the WIAA Division 2 state tournament and brings back senior Mitch Seager, who hit .521 last season. … Evansville will look to compete with Jefferson, as the Blue Devils are led by Johannes Haakenson (.411) and Sam Urquhart (.413). … Senior Nick Herbst, an Illinois State commit, hopes to lead McFarland to the top of the conference. … Bryce Parrish and Jimmy DuVal hope to help Whitewater compete in the Rock Valley after going 17-7 last season. … Edgerton hopes to compete in this loaded conference with the help of four-year starting shortstop Dan Zeimet (.317) and two-way senior Adam Loveland (.356 batting average, 2.93 ERA).
Around the area
Mineral Point finished third in the SWAL last year and returns eight starters, despite having just one senior. The Pointers are led offensively by catcher Justin Baehler, who hit .400 as a freshman. … Dodgeville, coached by local baseball veteran Pat Reilly, struggled to a 4-19 record last season (3-10 in the Southwest Wisconsin Conference) but played its best at the end of the season and returns 10 letterwinners and four starters, including four-year starter Zack Weber in center field and four-year utility player Tanner Bockhop. … River Valley coach Bob Wickman, a former major-league pitcher, has kept the Blackhawks on top of the Southwest Wisconsin Conference and it seen as the top challenger to favorite Prairie du Chien. … Veteran coach Mike Michalsky’s Wisconsin Dells Chiefs, who won the South Central Conference in 2016 but went 5-5 in the league last year, will be led by senior pitcher Jakob Millard and senior Travis Hudack. … Johnson Creek went 12-2 to win the Trailways South Conference title last year. Senior Kaleb Hartwig hit .373 for the Bluejays last year.